Exploration and Settlement

The first whites to enter Kentucky were explorers, hunters, and traders who had heard of the rich, fertile land and abundant game that lay west of the mountains. At the time, the area was considered part of the Virginia frontier. In 1750 the Loyal Land Company sponsored an expedition, led by Thomas Walker of Virginia, to find land suitable for settlement. The expedition found the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the mountains where Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky meet, and explored the valley beyond. In 1751 Christopher Gist of Maryland, an agent of the Ohio Land Company, explored the area along the Ohio River as far west as what is now Louisville. The French and Indian War (1754–63) temporarily halted further exploration.

After the war, Britain issued the Proclamation of 1763, prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachians until a policy to deal with the Indians was developed. It failed, however, to keep settlers from entering the region.

Daniel Boone, a frontiersman from North Carolina, tried to lead a group of settlers through the Cumberland Gap in 1773, but they were driven back by Cherokee Indians. The following year James Harrod, heading a small party of traders, established what is considered the first permanent settlement in Kentucky, in what is now Mercer County, calling it Harrod's Town (later Harrodsburg).

Also in 1774, Richard Henderson of North Carolina, having heard reports from Boone about the “Eden of the West,” organized the Transylvania Land Company, planning to establish a colony in what is now central Kentucky. He purchased a huge tract of land there from the Cherokee Indians. In 1775 he sent Boone ahead to blaze a trail (later called the Wilderness Road) through the Cumberland Gap and find a suitable location for settlement. In April, 1775, Boone built a fort, which he called Fort Boonesborough, south of the Kentucky River in present-day Madison County. Virginia dismissed the claims of the Transylvania Company and incorporated Kentucky as a county of Virginia in 1776.

Despite the Revolutionary War, which had begun in 1775, and the constant threat of attack by Indians from north of the Ohio River, thousands of immigrants poured through the Cumberland Gap and traveled the Wilderness Road. Settlements sprang up all over Kentucky County. Population totaled about 70,000 in 1790. The early settlers cleared the land, built homesteads, and fought off Indian raids in what came to be called the “dark and bloody ground” of Kentucky.